NEW BEDFORD — City councilors want to know what you, the voters, think: Should the city start governing rent increases?
This is one of a bundle of non-binding ballot questions — some that you’ve already answered, and not so long ago — that the council on Thursday night voted to put on the Nov. 7 municipal election ballot. The votes would not create new law, but they could help guide policy-making on three questions: Should a mayor’s term revert to two years, as it was before it was extended to four years in a ballot question decided in 2017; should the city pull out of the state’s Community Preservation Act program that New Bedford approved in 2014; should the city adopt an ordinance “stabilizing rents”?
The rent question will be new to the city ballot, an effort by council members to act in the face of rising rents and mounting anxiety about the cost of living.
“We have heard the stories” about rising rents, said Councilor-at-Large Shane Burgo, who joined with two other at-large members, Council President Linda Morad and Brian Gomes, in introducing the motion on Thursday. “This is just for us to ask the people of New Bedford what they want to do. Then we can begin the conversation.”
Gomes told a story about an elderly woman paying $800 for a second-floor apartment in the North End who was told that the rent would jump to $1,400 in six steps of $100 each.
“A lot of things contribute to this, some say it’s the train coming,” said Gomes, referring to the rail link to Boston expected to start service late this year. “But the train is not here and this has already started.”
With one member absent, the council voted 9-1 in favor of putting the question on the ballot, the dissenting vote cast by newly elected Councilor Shawn Oliver of Ward 3. He said he was concerned about unintended consequences, including discouraging investment in the city and prompting landlords to quickly raise rents before new limits take effect.
In an interview the next morning, Burgo said many landlords have not needed the prospect of a policy change to start raising rents.
“They’re already doing that,” he said. “So you’re telling me I should be afraid they’re going to do what they’re already doing.”
He said he was hoping the “non-binding public opinion advisory question,” as the council motion puts it, would demonstrate the “political will” needed to begin governing rent increases. He said he hopes the discussion would ultimately engage renters, landlords, and developers in shaping a program not to set a dollar cap on rent, but to limit how much rents could increase from one year to the next.
He said the vote on governing rents just taken by the Boston City Council could suggest how such an effort in New Bedford could unfold.
In an 11-2 vote the day before the New Bedford council’s vote, Boston councilors agreed to send a home-rule petition to the state Legislature endorsing a rent stabilization plan advanced by Mayor Michelle Wu. Under this proposal, annual rent increases would be limited to the change in the Consumer Price Index plus 6%, or no more than 10%.
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The Boston measure has to go to the state Legislature because in 1994 Massachusetts enacted a statewide ban on rent control, which would also cover rent stabilization. For the home-rule petition to take effect, it would have to be approved by both houses of the Legislature and the governor.
Councilors agreed that it made sense to at least take a first step in this direction.
“What I hope is that they show up to vote and that they do want rent stabilization,” Burgo said. “If we don’t have the political will to do this it’s dead on arrival.”
The council also wants to know the voters’ will on matters decided by city ballot in the last 10 years: the length of a mayor’s term in office, and participating in the Community Preservation Act, a statewide program established in 2000.
The vote to support a ballot question on the mayor’s term is only the latest turn in a continuing struggle between the mayor and the council, which evidently bristles at the city’s “strong mayor” system in general, and the leadership style of Mayor Jon Mitchell in particular.
In a meeting late last month, council members angrily aired their frustration with what they described as the mayor’s dismissive approach. Several councilors claimed the mayor ignored their requests for information as they worked recently on overhauling the pay classification schedule for nonunion department managers and other specialists.
Gomes, one of three councilors who introduced the measure Thursday night, along with Burgo and Morad, said when the voters approved the four-year term “they gave carte blanche for them [the mayor’s office] to do whatever they want.” He said he wants to return to the two-year term “so the people of the city have control.”
Burgo said that under the “strong mayor” form of government, the four-year term has caused an “even greater imbalance” of power between the executive and the legislative branches.
The shift to the four-year mayoral term in 2017 took place without the council’s support, as a citizen group gathered enough signatures to put the question on the ballot. The measure was approved by a vote of 6,904 to 6,127.
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First elected in 2011, Mitchell was re-elected to two-year terms three times, and to his first four-year term in 2019. He is up for re-election this year, but has not yet announced his plans.
The council vote to put this non-binding “advisory” question on the ballot was 10-0.
The council took two votes on participating in the Community Preservation Act, a program first adopted by the city by ballot vote in 2014 to raise money for an array of local projects that qualify under four categories: open space, historic preservation, recreation, and housing.
Under the program, on property value above $100,000, owners pay a 1.5% surcharge. The state matches between 5% and 100% of the sum communities raise.
This fiscal year, for instance, according to the current Community Preservation Plan, the city expects the state to put up about a third of the $1.2 million raised by the surcharge for a total of $1.6 million.
New Bedford’s Community Preservation Committee last month approved 23 requests with recommendations for allocations between $4,000 and nearly $271,000. The projects include work on restoring two historic theaters on Acushnet Avenue, the Capitol and the Strand, and for a playground at the Sgt. William Carney Memorial Academy Elementary School.
Morad said she introduced the measure for a CPA ballot question to respond to calls from constituents objecting to the added cost.
“People were over the edge” this year, she said. “A lot of people were saying it’s enough … I thought it would be fair to ask if people want to continue with the Community Preservation Act.”
Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima rose to speak in favor of the program, arguing that it brings in state money, and bolsters local organizations’ efforts to raise money from private sources.
Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey said his CPA surcharge bill last year was $36, and “I think for that money the residents get quite a bit.”
The first vote on a measure introduced by Morad would have approved a ballot question that would be binding on the city. In other words, if the vote in November went against CPA participation, the city would be obliged to withdraw.
That move for a binding ballot question failed by a vote of 3-7. Morad then introduced another motion to make the ballot question on the CPA “advisory,” like the other two ballot questions. That was adopted 7-3.
Mayor Mitchell did not sound enthusiastic about the council’s moves on mayoral term length or the other two issues. He said the council had taken up “three complex and far-reaching policy questions with barely a pretense of public deliberation and voted nearly unanimously to approve all of them.”
He said no council members had discussed any of these issues with his administration. He said “we will take a close look at them, but I am skeptical that the public’s interest was served Thursday night.”
Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.
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There is a reason Massachusetts banned rent control almost 30 years ago. It simply does not work. The only way to fix the housing situation is to increase the supply of houses. A better policy would be to ban Airbnb listings. A better policy would be to limit how many houses a person or business can own. A better policy would be to allow houses to be built higher than 3 stories if a zoning regulation currently exists that limits the height of a structure. I’m not saying New Bedford should do any of these things, but there has to be a better way.
And what about the home owners? Does anyone realize that if a cap is placed on how much a person can charge for their own asset it is going to cause the prices of homes to drop significantly? Why would I want to buy a house in New Bedford that limits my ability to charge rent if I could buy a house in Fall River that doesn’t have such restrictions.
What’s next? Are you going to tell the fish houses how much they can charge for a fish? Are you going to tell the gas stations how much they can charge for gas? Are you going to tell the internet companies how much they can charge for internet? This is not okay.
If I were in charge of fixing up New Bedford I would be pushing for the construction of a tiny home community. That would be the best way to give people an affordable option to live.
I understand rent has increased dramatically. I understand people cannot afford it. And I also want something to be done about it.
But restricting the ability for a person to charge whatever price they want is just wrong. It is their asset. They own it. And you have no right to tell people how much they can charge someone to live in their home.
If this passes, and somehow is allowed by the state, it is going to cause a huge problem for the city of New Bedford.
Housing prices will tumble. The tax revenue from property tax will plummet. And with that the school budget will be decreased. Teachers will leave for better paying jobs when the city can no longer afford to pay them a market wage.
And that will just be the beginning.
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